My earliest memories of George Michael concern me sitting in the family car, while my dad would choose to play a record from the singers eclectic back catalogue. Some days it would be the simplistic yet cheerful sounds of his Wham! days. At other times it would be the more sombre musings from his solo work in the early noughties. One thing I do remember, is that this was always accompanied by my mum demanding my dad “turn this sh*t off” or declaring “right, I’m choosing the next album we listen to after putting up with this.” She never was a Wham! or Michael fan. However, when the news broke of his death yesterday, even she was in mourning. “I feel this deep sinking feeling in my stomach” she said. This was because, love him or hate him, the music of George Michael has been inescapable for the past four decades. He was a crucial part of my parent’s youth in the 1980’s, and I can’t deny that his music also formed part of my own. While I was much more of a fan of the Wham! records, it would of course be George’s solo career that would propel him into international stardom. One thing is for sure: as all of us were eating Christmas dinner with our families yesterday, there was no doubt that Wham’s “Last Christmas” played at some point in the background. Yet none of us guessed that, for 53 year old Michael, those words would sadly take on a whole new level of truth.
George was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou in East Finchley London, to an English mother and a Greek Cypriot father. A child of Britain’s ever changing social dynamics, his family would move to the suburb of Radlett in Hertfordshire as his father’s restaurant business gained success. It would be at his high school in the neighbouring town of Bushey that he would meet his future Wham! band member, Andrew Ridgeley. Ridgeley shared both George’s international origins (his father was of Italian and Egyptian descent) and his passion to be a famous singer-songwriter. While the two initially formed a short lived ska band, Michael was already trying out solo musicianship for himself, playing as a DJ in local clubs and busking on the London Underground. In 1981 however, the two friends would form the group Wham! Two years later, their first album, Fantastic would reach number one in the UK charts. The rest, as they say, is history.
The duo’s first album would spawn such 80’s classics as “Wham Rap” “Young Guns” and “Club Tropicana”. Their position in the 80’s zeitgeist would be further cemented however with their second album release, 1984’s Make It Big. Another number one record, this would be where the tracks “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go”, “Freedom” and “Careless Whisper” were born. As great as these songs are, with this information alone one could be forgiven for thinking that Wham! were a two dimensional, successful 80’s pop group with no further consideration. However, this could not be further from the truth. The group’s impact on the social world of the 1980’s could first be recognised when they participated in Band Aid’s recording of “Do They Know Its Christmas” to raise funds for the Ethiopian famine victims. This song would knock Wham!’s own Christmas classic, “Last Christmas” off the number one spot; it continues to be the biggest selling number two record of all time. However, they donated all profits from “Last Christmas” to charity, further demonstrating Ridgeley and Michael’s philanthropic dimension.
Of even greater historical significance would be Wham!’s tour of China in 1985. This was because they were the first Western popular music act to play in the Communist state. Many types of popular music were banned before the group’s ascent. Their concert would, however, drive another wedge into the government’s control over the Chinese people. Michael himself was a socially conscious being throughout the decade, and a regular opponent of Britain’s Thatcher government. A staunch Labour voter, he once publicly distanced himself from the Thatcher regime by saying, “to call us (Wham!) Thatcherite was so simplistic, basically saying that if you’ve got a deep enough tan and made a bit of money then you’ve got to be a Thatcherite.”
Wham! would separate on a high in 1986, with Michael launching straight into his momentous solo career. In 1987 he would record a duet with soul legend Aretha Franklin, “I Knew You Were Waiting For Me”. Once again, it would see Michael claim a number one spot on the UK charts. It was his third consecutive number one as a solo artist, as he released the singles “Careless Whisper” and “A Different Corner” while still a part of Wham! 1987 would also be the year that he released his début solo album, Faith. Michael produced and wrote every single track on the recording, allowing him to make the transition from pop heartthrob to international music superstar.
His solo release would begin in the cloud of notoriety that would follow him throughout his life. The lead single release “I Want Your Sex” was so sexually explicit in lyrics and video release, it was banned by many UK and US radio broadcasters, and only shown on MTV in late hours. His second single release, “Faith” would be much less controversial but also much more popular. It penetrated the US charts, reaching number one on the Billboard top 100, and it continues to be one of Michael’s most popular songs to this day. It stayed on the Billboard top 200 for 51 non-consecutive weeks. The music video for “Faith”, which would see George wearing shades, a leather jacket and cowboy boots, would seal his place in music history as being a true 80’s icon.
His next album release was 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice. As the title indicates, the release saw Michael wanting to be taken even more seriously as a singer songwriter. He did not engage in any marketing for the album, and only two singles- “Praying For Time” and “Freedom 90”- being accompanied by music videos. Neither video showed George Michael himself, but the latter would become particularly iconic. “Freedom 90” would see super models Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz and Cindy Crawford lip syncing to the track. The 90’s supermodels would help stamp the track with the “90’s classic” seal of approval.
Though George Michael is now considered something of a gay icon, it would not be until 1998 that he would reveal his sexuality to the world. Though there had often been rumours surrounding Michael being gay, the admission was almost forced out when he was discovered performing a lewd act with a gentlemen in a public place. The secrecy was much more of a testament to society’s prevailing homophobia then any shame on Michael’s part. In an interview with The Advocate in 1999, Michael admitted that he had “never had a moral problem with being gay,” though at one point he had considered himself bisexual. It would be falling in love with a man that would end his qualm over his bisexuality. Sadly, his boyfriend Anselmo Feleppa would die of HIV related complications in 1993. In the midst of the tragedy, Michael was also faced with the stigma surrounding HIV and homosexuality at the time. He had not yet revealed to his family that he was gay, which made the thought that he could be HIV positive even more terrifying.
Michael would continue to release new music throughout the 2000s. His 2004 album Patience would be one of reflection and melancholy, but would also see George once again taking a political stance. The single “Shoot The Dog” was a protest against the Iraq War, taking particular aim at what Michael perceived to be a toxic relationship between US president George Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. This critique was carried through in the satirical music video. Patience entered the UK album charts at number one, showing that Michael had not lost any of his original success. Sadly, the 2000’s would also be a decade when his notorious private life would become as famous as his music. He was arrested for possession of Class C drugs in 2006, and in 2010 he drove his car into the front of a store in Hampstead. After admitting to driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol, Michael served four weeks in prison. However, his sense of humour was never far behind him. His run in with the law was a point of mockery when he starred in James Cordon’s first ever “Carpool Karaoke” in 2011. At the time, the sketch had been written for Comic Relief, and had not yet become a regular skit for Cordon. It would however go on to be a regular part of Cordon’s Late Late show, leading the comedian to pay tribute to the man who had given the inspiration for his popular sketch.
What perhaps makes Michael’s death even more sad is the stories that continue to come out about his charitable giving. There is speculation that he secretly volunteered at a homeless shelter in London, and that he donated money to a woman who needed it to pay for IVF treatment. After a near brush with death in 2011, he performed a private “thank you” concert for the doctors and nurses in Vienna who saved his life. His contracting of the serious infection lead him to cancel the remainder of his 2011 tour dates. The cancelled dates on the Symphonica Tour would however continue the following year. It was to be Michael’s final tour.
So as you can see, there were many dimensions to Michael as both a musician and a person. As new details continue to emerge about his untimely death, we should remember him as a performer, a multi-instrumentalist, a philanthropist and gay rights activist and, above all, a person who’s music touched the lives of millions. None of us wanted this to be George Michael’s “Last Christmas”. Yet just as he paid tribute to his idol Freddie Mercury in 1992 after the Queen singer’s death, I have no doubt that countless performers will be lining up to do the same for the singer who inspired them.
Words by Paige Tracey (@The_PaigeTracey)